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Red, white & green
Climate change hits the campaign trail

This weekend more than a billion people are expected to watch the huge global warming concerts that Al Gore is staging on every continent. But my guess is that the few dozen young people who recently gathered on a town green in Lebanon, New Hampshire, may sway the future at least as much.

Those college kids were the advance guard of “Climate Summer,” an effort to make global warming a central issue in the next presidential campaign. They will be trailing candidates, canvassing voters, and in early August marching across the state with thousands of local residents.

And in the process they’ll be trying to upend conventional political wisdom, which is that the environment is always a second-tier issue, trailing jobs and health care and foreign policy. It’s a tough sell — but there are real signs that this year may be different on the campaign trail.

For one thing, the science of global warming seems finally to have sunk in with Americans. Every week another story shows just how far down a dangerous road we’ve gone: the latest jolt was the news that the Arctic might be ice-free in summer by 2020. By now, every new tropical storm trips the warning bell in people’s minds.

And people are even realizing they need to do something about the problem — one recent poll found that 44 percent of Americans thought cars that got less than 30 miles per gallon should be banned (which means, if you pay attention to mileage statistics, that about half of them were willing to outlaw their own vehicle).

Faced with those kinds of numbers, leading candidates at least on the Democratic side of the race have staked out strong positions on global warming. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards have already all endorsed the Climate Summer goal of 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050.

The fight now is to get them talking about it, over and over again, so that they’ve honed their pitch to the point that they can convince Congress should they win office in 2008. And the only way to do that is to keep asking the candidates, keep pressing them.

Six years ago, a much smaller group of students did something similar in New Hampshire. They didn’t manage, alas, to affect George W. Bush, but their constant questioning did move John McCain. As soon as he got back to the capitol, in fact, he convened a hearing on the issue.

“One of the great things about the requirements of the electoral process is extensive interaction with the citizenry,” McCain told his fellow senators. “There is a group of Americans who now come to political rallies with signs that say, ‘What is your [climate change] plan?’ I am sorry to say that I do not have a plan because I do not have, nor do the American people have, sufficient information and knowledge. But I do intend, beginning with this hearing, to become informed, to reach some conclusions, and make some recommendations.”

The result, the McCain-Lieberman climate bill, was fairly modest, but it’s the closest Washington ever came to doing anything.

This year’s Climate Summer campaign is much bigger — there are students from dozens of schools, cramming into rented houses, dividing the state up into territories, connecting with campaigns. And they have many new allies locally — in the small town of Amherst, for instance, where 400 residents turned out in April for a climate change demonstration, and where this year’s big 4th of July parade is a celebration of “the red, white, and green.”

As the name implies, the campaign is bolder too. The students are paying a kind of homage to Freedom Summer, now four decades in the past, when 800 northern college kids went south to Mississippi and helped turn America around.

Those students faced unimaginably greater perils, of course—indeed three of them were murdered within days of their arrival. But their faith in the American democratic system endures to this new generation of college students. It’s amazing to talk with them as they arrive in the Granite State and find very little cynicism, and a very deep faith that they can make a difference. “There’s nothing I can imagine doing with my summer as important as this,” said Sierra Murdoch, an organizer from Middlebury College. “There’s nothing I can imagine doing with life as important as this.”

It would be nice indeed if they left New Hampshire as hopeful as they have come.